Gymnastics is one of the most challenging sports on the planet. Each day, gymnasts face physical, psychological, and intellectual demands. This makes the sport an ideal breeding ground from which to develop the qualities that make a successful human being: self-discipline, humility, resilience, work ethic, self-belief, and many more. At the same time, the athlete develops physical strength, coordination, flexibility, and athleticism. 

Involvement in gymnastics also promotes social well-being. Relationships are forged and community engagement enhanced. 

In spite of all of these positives, gymnastics has had a hard time in recent years. The Larry Nasser sex-crime scandal has brought the sport into the headlines, exposing a seedy underside that may be more widespread than people ever imagined. 

Many gymnasts and trainers also find themselves in very toxic environments. In these situations, the physical and mental well-being of the athlete takes second place to the acquisition of medals.

There has developed a culture within some gymnastics clubs that the health of the athlete needs to be compromised in order for the club to gain success in high-level competition. The goal of this article is to show that the very opposite is, in fact, the case. 

The gyms that are consistently producing champions are those that promote a culture of character development, good health, the setting of example with a high work ethic while being inclusive and nurturing.

In this article, I will present four principles to build a positive gymnastics culture that promotes the healthy nurturing of its athletes.

Before we begin, here’s an overview of these four key principles:

  1. Be A Role Model of Good Values and Morals
  2. Establish a Priority Hierarchy
  3. Invest Time in Creating Your Culture
  • Start with a Vision
  • Communicate Your Gym Culture
  • Demonstrate Leadership at All Levels
  • Educate Visitors
  • Develop Buy-In
  • Always Act Like a Role Model
  • Respect Different Views
  • Get Rid of Toxic People
  • Ban the Three Cs
  1. Develop a Collaborative Environment

What a Negative Gym Culture Looks Like

If you’ve been around gymnastics gyms for a while, you’ve probably seen instances of behavior that can only be described as toxic. Here are a few typical examples …

  • A coach physically pushes an athlete into a flexible position that causes pain.
  • Parents or coaches yell at an athlete for not completing a move to perfection.
  • Coaches (or parents again) who push an athlete to train to compete despite injury.
  • Coaches who assign workouts as ‘punishment’.
  • Coaches who make athletes do strength exercises that are too challenging and that don’t have any science behind their inclusion.

If you question these sorts of practices, you’re likely to be told that that’s what it takes to be a champion, or that’s how they’ve always done it. A coach may even roll out the old standby, “It was good enough for [insert star’s name], so I’m sure it’s gonna be good enough for your kid.”

Of course, for every athlete who rises to the top in a toxic environment, hundreds more are traumatized, demoralized, and left with nothing but bad memories. 

The toxic culture that exists in many gyms has led to a high rate of injury among athletes and a high number of athletes who decide to quit the sport. The major contributing factors to a toxic gymnastics culture appear to be …

  • Questionable motivation methods
  • Inappropriate flexibility techniques
  • Strength and conditioning programs that are not appropriate
  • Not enough time given for athlete recovery
  • Unreasonable repetition requirements
  • Application of training methods that are not soundly rooted in scientific evidence or coaching rationale
  • A lack of collaboration and communication

6 Principles of Positive Gymnastics Culture

  1. Be A Role Model of Good Values and Morals

As the coach, you are the person who sets the tone of your gym. But you are not the only one your students will look to as their example. They will also be influenced by parents and medical professionals. While you don’t have direct control over how they conduct themselves, you should, by your example, show them what the culture of your gym expects from them.

Your values and morals will dictate the way you conduct yourself and the things you do. As a result, your morals and values are a large determiner of the culture of your facility. 

Here are some moral and values attributes that contribute to a positive gym culture …

  • Humility
  • Self-awareness
  • Self-reflection
  • Self-evaluation
  • Empathy
  • Honesty
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Self-control
  • Patience
  • Kindness

It can be challenging to undergo a self-analysis in relation to these types of qualities. My recommendation is to ask a person who knows you well to help you identify any attributes you need to work on. 

Good gymnastics coaches have moral depth, have a center and are at peace with themselves. They know who they are and love that person. They don’t need or seek validation from others. On the other hand, coaches who lack moral depth may have a tendency to denigrate others in order to prop themselves up or chase trophies to boost their self-esteem.

A positive role model values intrinsic over extrinsic motivation. This is taught to students by encouraging them to find the motivation within themselves rather than imposing artificial motivation through a punishment/reward system. 

Good checks will also keep the hierarchy within the club in check. There is always a degree of hierarchy required but this should be carefully managed. Keep a careful eye on the conduct of more senior athletes. If they appear to be lording it over their less experienced peers, call it out and let everyone know that you won’t tolerate that sort of behavior.

Being kind and empathetic doesn’t mean that you should not have high expectations and being tough on your students. But it does mean that you are never mean to them. So, what’s the difference between toughness and meanness? Let’s look at a couple of examples …

Example One:

Tough

A coach instructs a student to do five more sets of release drills and full release skills because the student fell down on that skill and is nervous about having it in her routine.

Mean:

The coach berates the athlete in front of her teammates for missing the skills and then tells her that she’ll be on the bars until she gets it right. 

Example Two:

Tough:

During a large meet, an athlete falls on a dismount that they normally achieve effortlessly. The coach comes over to check that the athlete isn’t injured. He then says something like … I know you’re upset. I wanted you to land like you do in practice, but right now there is nothing we can do. We need to forget it and move on to the next event. We will talk about it more after the meet on how we’re going to not let that happen again.

Mean:

When the athlete falls, the coach lifts his arms to the heavens and yells out, What’s wrong with you? You never fall on that. I can’t believe you just blew it!

  1. Establish a Priority Hierarchy

Impose a non-negotiable priority hierarchy in your gym that goes like this .. .

  • Priority One: Athlete health and well-being
  • Priority Two: Building great people
  • Priority Three: Building great gymnasts

By sticking to this order of priority, you will be nurturing healthy training relationships while, at the same time, setting the student up for long-term success. 

Use the priority hierarchy as a guidepost to everything you do. At the end of each day, take a few minutes to check off your actions that day against it. If you find yourself, flipping any of the priorities, resolve to do better tomorrow.

You should promote the priority hierarchy as part of your gym culture. Display it on the gym wall and refer to it often. Talk to parents about and about how it should be shown in the way they support their children.

  1. Invest Time in Creating Your Culture

Developing a positive gymnastics culture doesn’t happen by accident. It is something that needs to be built upon every day. That takes deliberate focus and it takes time. As a result, you should make it a priority to maintain a healthy training culture and environment. Here are nine ways to do it:

Start with a Vision

Have clearly in mind what a positive gym culture looks like. Imagine that you are a 3rd party looking down on a club that has an outstanding culture. What would you see? How do the coaches, staff, athletes, and parents act? 

Once you have a clear vision of what a great positive gym culture looks like, conduct an audit of your gym to see how it matches up. Don’t do this in isolation. Instead, bring all the key stakeholders together to get buy-in and discuss what you can all do to improve the gym culture.

Communicate Your Gym Culture

Your gym culture should be embodied in your vision. So, you should have a vision statement that forms the foundation of positive gym culture. A vision statement is an aspiring description of what you would like to achieve in the long-term future. That long-term future could be anywhere from 5 to 15 years down the track. 

Once you have formulated your business vision, you should use it to help you make strategic decisions along the way. It should also inspire you and act as a goal that you are working toward. Ultimately, it will answer the question of why you do what you do. 

Provide your staff with regular training and reminders related to your priority hierarchy and the development of positive gym culture. Just as you wouldn’t let your students get away with poor performances, neither should you let your staff do so. 

Display signage that reflects a positive gym culture, where the priority is on the health and well-being of the athlete first and foremost. Talk about this with your students and with their parents, making sure that everyone is onboard. 

Demonstrate Leadership at All Levels

Just as you should expect your staff to reflect your high standards of morals and values as they lead your students, so too you should expect that of your senior students as they interact with the next generation. 

You can promote excellent leadership among your senior students by having regular pep talks with them in which you remind them about the way things are done at the club and why they are done that way.

When you recognize examples of outstanding leadership among your staff and senior students, recognize and celebrate them. This could be something as simple as a person holding open the door for someone else or encouraging another student when they’re having a down day. 

Here are fourteen tips on compassionate leadership that all gym coaches should take on board …

  • You empower your students and staff  (your team members) when you show compassion towards them. Compassion is closely associated with empathy, which has been defined as ‘your pain in my heart’. It means that you see past the veneer to the real people and the real struggles that they are going through. 
  • When you are able to develop compassion toward your team members you will be able to understand what drives them, what makes them tick. When you appreciate these things, you will be better able to motivate that person. 
  • The word compassion comes from the Latin meaning ‘to suffer with’. A compassionate leader will listen and simply be present when a team member is struggling, rather than coming out with platitudes and then disappearing because they feel uncomfortable. 
  • A compassionate leader will be able to work with team members to face difficulties, rather than backing away. He will listen and provide guidance. 
  • A useful trick to developing compassion is simply to remind yourself that we are all the same – we all want to be happy, to be liked by others, and to be comfortable with ourselves. When you do that you are able to break down the artificial barriers that are created by organizational hierarchy. 
  • When you look at your team member through the eyes of compassion you become better than the leader who is impatient and who has a controlling mentality. 
  • By empowering our team members and displaying compassion towards them, we humanize them. When we don’t we do the opposite. In fact, we tend to view them as objects that are useful only to help us reach our goals. When they don’t do what we want, we label them as stupid or hopeless. 
  • Yet, by empowering our team members and showing compassion toward them, we will greatly improve both the quality and value of our environment. 
  • The Compassionate leader is a blend of the two classic leadership styles – driver and enhancer. Drivers are task driven whereas enhancers are relationship driven. You don’t want to be either of these extremes. 
  • The truly effective leader knows how to get the best performance from his employees while also being viewed as considerate, trusting, and collaborative. It involves being tough without being harsh, while also being nice without being soft. 
  • Compassion will help a leader to deal with situations when they arise rather than letting them fester. Giving honest feedback, but doing so compassionately, is the kindest thing you can do for a person.
  • Often, people know that they need to change but are unable to do so – they are stuck in inertia. Your job as a leader is to provide the opportunity for them to change in an unthreatening environment.
  • Empower people by setting clear agreements with them. Your team members want to know what is expected of them. So be clear and direct in this regard. You do not want to create an atmosphere of unspoken expectations.
  • Get buy-in from your team members on expectations rather than imposing edicts upon them. 

Educate Visitors

When people come into your club, they are effectively entering your home. You are the boss and you set the climate. It is, therefore, your responsibility to educate them about the way things are done at your club. 

If you’ve got a poster on the wall with your vision or the priority hierarchy on it, you can simply point to it and mention that you take pride in that positive culture. If the person begins to do things that are not in keeping with your culture, you are the person who needs to call it out. 

Whether it’s a parent, a visiting instructor, or a medical professional, you need to keep an eye to ensure that they do not bring any negativity or skewed priorities into your environment. If you’re not careful, one person could inject a poisonous atmosphere that could potentially ruin all of your hard work in developing a positive culture for your gym.

Develop Buy-In

 A positive gym culture cannot be dictated from above. There needs to be buy-in by all stakeholders. An idea that has been successful for many gyms is to develop a champions charter as a project with all staff and students. Rather than listing these as rules, they should be regarded as behaviors to copy. Challenge your students to come up with a dozen or so behaviors that are exhibited by real champions, not just on the gym floor, but in life.

Once you and your students have come up with a list of behaviors, put them into poster form and display it on the gym wall. Then, invite all stakeholders to go up and sign their names to the poster. When new people come into your gym environment, have one of your students explain the poster to them and invite them to also put their signature to it. 

Always Act Like a Role Model

Whether you like it or not, you are a role model to your staff and your students. Remember that you cannot realistically expect your students to follow your advice but ignore your example. Unless the two are aligned, you may win their obedience but you will never win their respect. 

Respect Different Views

 A positive gym culture is one in which all voices are respected. That means that every staff member and every student should feel safe to voice their opinion, even if it is contrary to yours. Diversity of opinion can lead to innovative thinking and new and better ways of doing things. So, encourage everyone to have their say. Rather than discounting views that are contrary to yours, listen respectfully and then present counterpoints if appropriate. 

Get Rid of Toxic People

Toxic people can decimate a positive gym culture. You should, therefore, have a set policy in place to deal with toxic people, whether they happen to be a student, a parent, a staff member, or anyone else. It even applies to your athletic stars. There is no place for a prima donna in a gym that has a positive gym environment. If the person won’t change, you need to have the guts to tell them to find another place to frequent. 

Ban the Three Cs

The three Cs are complaining, criticizing, and comparing. There is no place for any of them in a positive gym. These toxic behaviors will suck the energy and positivity out of your club. Here’s another opportunity to put a poster on the wall so that everybody knows that these behaviors are not to be carried out at your facility. 

  1. Develop a Collaborative Environment

Successful gymnastic clubs provide a collaborative environment. That may include bringing in other experts to provide a holistic service for the students. Coaches who are not obsessed with their own egos will relish the opportunity to bring in strength coaches, nutritionists, injury management, and mental health experts. 

This provision of an integrated circle of professionals is a sign of a healthy, vibrant gymnastics club. This sort of collaboration often happens at the college level but is less frequent at junior levels. Yet, it is something that is necessary at every level. 

As a coach, you need to realize that you do not have all of the knowledge and skills that your students need to find success. Areas such as sports psychology and injury management are much too important to be ignored. 

And it needn’t cost you a lot of money to bring in an expert. In fact, many clubs have been able to bring in lecturers free of charge, who see it as an opportunity to promote their services to parents. You may also be able to barter your services, where you do a corresponding lecture about some aspect of gymnastics or movement for their clientele. 

Summary

Developing a positive gym culture should be your objective before opening your doors and it should be worked on every day. Here are the key principles that go into doing so that we’ve covered in this article …

  1. Be A Role Model of Good Values and Morals
  2. Establish a Priority Hierarchy
  3. Invest Time in Creating Your Culture
  • Start with a Vision
  • Communicate Your Gym Culture
  • Demonstrate Leadership at All Levels
  • Educate Visitors
  • Develop Buy-In
  • Always Act Like a Role Model
  • Respect Different Views
  • Get Rid of Toxic People
  • Ban the Three Cs
  1. Develop a Collaborative Environment

Remember that a positive gym culture can be ruined by one toxic individual. As the leader of your club, you need to have the courage to weed out toxic influences to keep your facility from contamination. Then make sure that, in everything you do, you put the health and welfare of your students first, developing great people second and creating great gymnastics third. Do that and your club will be filled with happy, well-adjusted athletes, supportive parents and nurturing staff members.

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